Overly Sensitive

A problem that happens when you give into political correctness is that it starts creeping into places that you wouldn’t expect.  That’s because the social justice warriors who do battle under its flag are nothing if they don’t have a target for their outrage–so if one isn’t readily apparent, they’ll go looking high and low until they find one.  Sometimes it’s a college professor telling students to chill out about Halloween costumes.  Other times, it’s a Nobel laureate who made a joke that some people didn’t particularly like.  And then there’s the occasional random nobody who makes an ill-advised tweet.  Point is, it doesn’t really matter, so long as a scalp is taken and a life is ruined.  That’s how social justice warriors make their bones.  It’s also how they exercise their power:  Nice [FILL IN THE BLANK] you got there, be a shame if something happened to it.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the iron boot is now stepping on the throat of the publishing world.  Publishers, who face serious challenges to their business model even without a rabid mob breathing down their necks, are taking the path of least resistance when it comes to #TheResistance and enlisting sensitivity professionals to make sure that their books aren’t, well, insensitive:

Before a book is published and released to the public, it’s passed through the hands (and eyes) of many people: an author’s friends and family, an agent and, of course, an editor.


These days, though, a book may get an additional check from an unusual source: a sensitivity reader, a person who, for a nominal fee, will scan the book for racist, sexist or otherwise offensive content. These readers give feedback based on self-ascribed areas of expertise such as “dealing with terminal illness,” “racial dynamics in Muslim communities within families” or “transgender issues.”

Just who are these sensitivity readers?  Don’t worry, there’s an app–er, a database–for that:

For authors looking for sensitivity readers beyond their fan base there is the Writing in the Margins database, a resource of about 125 readers created by Justina Ireland, author of the YA books “Vengeance Bound” and “Promise of Shadows.” Ireland started the directory last year after hearing other authors at a writing retreat discuss the difficulties in finding people of different backgrounds to read a manuscript and give feedback about such, well, sensitive matters.


One reader for hire in Ireland’s database is Dhonielle Clayton, a librarian and writer based in New York. Clayton reviews two manuscripts per month, going line by line to look at diction, dialogue and plot. Clayton says she analyzes the authenticity of the characters and scenes, then points writers to where they can do more research to improve their work.


Clayton…sees her role as a vital one. “Books for me are supposed to be vehicles for pleasure, they’re supposed to be escapist and fun,” she says. They’re not supposed to be a place where readers “encounter harmful versions” and stereotypes of people like them.

Call me cynical, but I find it hard to believe that anyone who picks through the lines of a book searching for “harmful versions” of people like her is looking to dive into a book seeking escape and fun.  She’s more like William Shatner picking through a script to make sure that Leonard Nimoy doesn’t get more lines of dialogue.

Believe me, the kind of person who would want the job of “sensitivity reader” is not the kind of person you want having quality control over your novel.  One of the joys of writing fiction is that the vision is uniquely yours–not something like in the movies, where everything gets slapped together after everybody has a say-so and the product has been screen tested to death.  Tossing in a third party who has no stake in the creative process of devising the story and characters is nothing more than writing by committee.  And as anybody who has seen Howard the Duck knows, nothing good ever comes of that.

There’s also something Stalinist about requiring a writer to submit to this kind scrutiny.  What if I think my sensitivity reader is full of it?  Am I free to discard the advice?  Or is my publisher going to cancel my contract if I don’t abide?  I’ve had a few disagreements with my editors in the course of getting my own books ready for publication, all of which I had for very good reasons.  I fought those changes because I believed strongly that I was right, and in the those cases my editors relented because I was the writer and I knew the material best.  But what happens if my publisher, afraid of being accused of insensitivity, refuses to budge?

It can only mean that fiction, rather than challenging readers–rather than shocking them, making them uncomfortable, making them question, making them think–will become more watered down, less controversial, and less interesting.  And who the hell wants that?

Except social justice warriors, that is.

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Marc Giller

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